I knew a four-year-old in the early 70s who would plunk himself in front of the TV when Fred Rogers greeted his viewers. “Hi, Mr. Rogers,” he’d respond quietly, in a voice that reached just to the screen. As if no one was in the room but them. Or they were in a bubble. Any adults present were outside.

A lot has been written on Fred Rogers and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood since his death a week ago. He has been praised for lack of gimmickry and hyperactivity. “Let morphing monsters rampage elsewhere, or educational programs jump up and down,” said The New York Times obituary. He created “an oasis of calm, wit and familiarity,” read the Globe’s. Time said the remarkable thing wasn’t his love for children but his respect. In The Globe and Mail, Tim Wynne-Jones noted his “amazing and unwavering” focus on his audience. It’s all true. What I’d like to add is the fine thing that went along with that focus on kids: in effect, neglect of their parents.

I also used to watch Sesame Street in those years, sometimes with kids, sometimes not. I often wondered what they made of the many pop culture references, like parodies of a 50s TV show called This Is Your Life, which surprised celebrities with people from their past. I suppose the kids gathered it had some relevance and soldiered through. Adults, of course, got it all. I never felt, as an adult, outside of Sesame Street.

That blended focus, kids and adults, has characterized a lot of recent Kidcult. It offers something to the parents, too. It’s true of all the tales and shows that teach moral or political “lessons.” You can sense the elements — nudges, winks, asides — that have been inserted for adults. I suppose it’s intended as positive: providing a basis on which adults can join their kids instead of abandoning them to the TV. But it has a stingy side.

The late Christopher Lasch, who started as a left academic and grew crankier and more conservative, or just more dubious about human nature, wrote a book in 1979 called The Culture of Narcissism. He described his generation, ostensibly devoted to liberal, collective, non-competitive values, as deeply anxious and self-serving in their own way, while their egalitarian, permissive child-rearing practices concealed self-absorption. It seems to me there’s some proof of it, in the adult-oriented elements of Kidcult. If you think about it, the best recent movies for kids — Shrek, Ice Age or Toy Story 2 (in my opinion, the best U.S. film since Casablanca or, at any rate, Godfather II) — are at least as enjoyable for adults as for kids. The finest TV cartoons are now made for adults. “The Simpsons are far more nuanced characters than those played by actual humans on most sitcoms,” wrote Andres Martinez in The New York Times. The grown-ups took over, though the kids are allowed to join in.

What you sensed kids felt as they watched Mr. Rogers was: Here is an adult who does it for us, who doesn’t try to cut the grown-ups in, as if they deserve his attention as much as we do. There are shows now that kids react to in that way — Blue’s Clues or Dora the Explorer. It’s not that they don’t enjoy shows or movies with adult elements; but they seem more centred, happy and calm as they watch the former. Who wouldn’t?

A society pays a price for too much generational horning-in. When kids reach their teens, and inevitably separate from parents, they might do so with a degree of vindictiveness and self-destructiveness if they feel they have been denied a due respect for their distinctness when they were little. I’m thinking about the levels of depression and suicide among adolescents today. The pompous, omniscient parenting of the 50s did a different damage; it provoked rebellion against authority but not self-hate—which implies one isn’t even worthy of rebelling and of setting up as an independent entity.

Few U.S. obits mentioned that Fred Rogers was brought to Toronto by the CBC in 1963 and created his show here, then moved back to Pittsburgh and broadcast from there on the United States’ first public TV station. His friend, the late Ernie Coombs, came, too, and stayed, to be Mr. Dressup, in the same calm, respectful vein for three decades. A few years ago, waiting in the makeup chair to go on some daytime talk show, I noticed that the guest after me was to be Ernie Coombs. I asked the makeup person, whom I assumed gets a great view of what people who go on TV are really like, about him. I said I sort of hoped he was a mean sonofabitch.

Later, he and I passed in the corridor. “I am a mean sonofabitch,” he tried to snarl. Well, maybe he was. If so, more power to him. What we ought to have admired in him and Fred Rogers wasn’t their niceness to kids. Anyone can be nice to anyone, from a shocking variety of motives. It was their benign, unstinting attention.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.